Race pits retired Marine fighter pilot with fundraising chops against the most powerful Republican in Congress
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
LEXINGTON (CFP) — After nearly unseating a sitting Republican congressman in 2018, Democrat Amy McGrath has set her sights on a much bigger target in 2020 — the most powerful Republican in Congress, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
The retired Marine fighter pilot announced July 9 that she will challenge McConnell next year, setting the stage for a marquee Senate battle with national implications that will submerge 4.5 million Kentuckians in a sea of negative advertising.
McGrath pulled no punches in her opening campaign video, saying the senator “was elected a lifetime ago and has, bit by bit, year by year, turned Washington into something we all despise … a place where ideals go to die.”
“There is a path to resetting our country’s moral compass, where each of us is heard,” she said. “But to do that, we have to win this.”
McConnell’s campaign responded in kind, launching a website. “WrongPathMcGrath.com,” and posting a video on Twitter featuring comments McGrath made in her 2018 race, including saying that “I am further left, more progressive than anybody in Kentucky” and comparing her feelings after President Donald Trump’s election in 2016 to how she felt after seeing the towers fall on 9/11.
“Welcome to the race, Amy,” read the McConnell campaign’s tweet atop the video.
McGrath’s decision to take on McConnell was a win for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and other Senate Democratic leaders who had been recruiting her for the race. But she will face the most formidable force in Kentucky and national politics, who easily swatted away both primary and general election challenges in 2014.
McGrath, 44, who grew up in the Cincinnati suburbs in northern Kentucky, is a Naval Academy graduate who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq as a Marine fighter pilot. After retiring in 2017, she returned to Kentucky to seek the 6th District U.S. House seat against Republican U.S. Rep. Andy Barr.
She raised more than $8.6 million for that race, thanks in part to a video about her life story that went viral, and dispatched a better-known candidate in the Democratic primary before losing to Barr in November by less than 10,000 votes.
Her decision to run for the Senate is good news for Barr, who won’t face a rematch. He has yet to draw another major Democratic challenger.
McConnell, 77, is seeking his seventh term in the Senate; when he was first elected in 1984, McGrath was just 9 years old. He has led Senate Republicans since 2007 and became majority leader in 2015 after the GOP took control.
McConnell, a frequent object of wrath from Trump partisans and some Tea Party groups, has drawn a GOP primary challenge from former State Rep. Wesley Morgan, from Richmond, who has said McConnell “embodies everything that is perverted in Washington D.C.”
However, it is unlikely Morgan — who endorsed a Democrat for his House seat after losing a Republican primary in 2018 — will be able to mount a substantial primary challenge against McConnell, who in 2014 swatted away a much more serious challenge from now-Governor Matt Bevin.
In 2014, Democrats had high hopes of unseating McConnell with Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. But in the end, McConnell won by 15 points.
Given McConnell’s stature and McGrath’s fundraising prowess, the 2020 race is likely to feature an avalanche of outside advertising in a small state with just two large urban areas and four television markets.
In 2014, McConnell and Grimes spent a combined $50 million, or about $11 for every man, woman and child in the commonwealth. And those figures don’t include spending by outside groups.